Connie McIndoe has been saving her cats’ whiskers for years. Finally, she has a use for them.
The bristly sheddings have been turned into building materials for a birdhouse that the Hopewell-based ceramic artist has constructed for a cause. McIndoe is among some 100 artists, architects, craftspersons and other imaginative types who have taken on the challenge of creating unique birdhouses to be auctioned on Sunday, September 30 at ETS, at “There’s No Place Like Home,” a benefit celebrating the 40th anniversary of Princeton Community Housing.
“Housing for birds, housing for people — it all just seems to work,” says Sandra Persichetti, executive director of PCH, the largest supplier of affordable housing in Princeton and the second largest not-for-profit affordable housing developer in New Jersey. “I had seen a birdhouse auction at a Habitat for Humanity function in Connecticut, and I thought it was a great idea. It really works with who we are. We’re not the black tie, dinner dance type of people. But we wanted to have a celebration. And this is our first major benefit.”
The birdhouses have been arriving since last month, and they sit lined up on tables in the basement of Persichetti’s townhouse. As of a few weeks ago, the entries included a birdhouse made of cork; another with a Noah’s Ark theme, with animals, two by two, peeking from its windows; one shaped like a gourd, painted gold and flecked with red; and a curvy metal house mimicking the style of architect Frank Gehry.
“They’re still coming in,” Persichetti says. “This started out as a good idea that has blossomed. We sent letters out to 300 architects, artists, landscapers, and others. One hundred responded. The interesting thing is that all these little groups in town are now talking about birdhouses. It’s more than the arts people. It’s builders, teachers. We even have one made by a mechanical engineer.”
There are big-name architects who have built birdhouses for the event. Robert Hillier’s contribution is a house made of ping-pong balls. Michael Graves’ entry, with a tower in the middle, bears his artistic signature. Architects Michael Mostoller, Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild, and Max Hayden are also represented.
Several artists have also been hard at work. McIndoe’s husband Ken, a painter who teaches at the Art Students’ League in New York City, contributed a chicken house and another little dwelling made with San Pellegrino water bottle caps. As for McIndoe herself, participating in the auction was a natural. She has created works of art for previous benefits in town. A fulltime ceramic artist for the past 35 years, McIndoe, who is from New York, teaches in her own studio and has taught at Queensboro Community College and Georgian Court College.
“I got involved in clay in 1961. I had lived in Italy and Japan, and was involved in teaching but also studied clay in both places,” McIndoe says. “In Japan, I apprenticed to a master potter, and that was a big influence on me. I have a very Japanese aesthetic in many ways.”
McIndoe’s work is currently on view in the “Dangerous Women” show at Mercer County Community College. She shows pieces at the Deschamps Gallery in Lambertville and several other venues in the area. Along with the cat whiskers, her wooden birdhouse has protusions of clay with feathers, which she found on walks about 10 years ago at Terhune Orchards. “It’s just pure fun. I hope somebody finds it as much fun as I did,” McIndoe says. “This kind of thing is time-consuming but fun to do.”
Founded by a group of Princeton residents concerned with maintaining the economic and racial mix of the town, PCH’s early members came from area churches and Princeton University. They purchased land for the first site, Princeton Community Village on Bunn Drive, a mix of low and moderate income apartments and townhouses, which opened in 1975.
“Our board grew to encompass all the churches and educational institutions in town, along with the YWCA and the League of Women Voters,” says Marcy Crimmins, PCH’s director of management and finance and an active participant since 1975. Crimmins was the first manager of Princeton Community Village. Since the Bunn Drive development, the organization has opened Griggs Farm, Elm Court, and this past spring the Harriet Bryan House. All of the 463 units on the four sites are rentals, owned and managed by PCH.
The mission is to make the community affordable for the people who work within its boundaries. “You’ve got two very large employers, the university and the hospital, here in town,” says Crimmins, “and they are hiring a lot of low-wage employees. These people shouldn’t have to use a lot of gas to get to their jobs every day. I raised my kids here. I wouldn’t have wanted to raise them in a town that didn’t have economic and racial diversity. We want to maintain that.”
Princeton knitter Susan Ashmore was inspired by knitting, fulling, and felting techniques to create her version of a birdhouse for the event. Built in one piece with a top added on, the house is made from a cable pattern that reminds Ashmore of a tree. “My artwork is just a hobby,” she says modestly. “I learned to knit in second grade. I was self-taught, and I just kept going. When my first daughter was born I needed an outlet. That’s when it cranked up a notch.”
Raised in northern New Jersey, Ashmore grew up in an artistic family. Her sister is a fiber artist. Her brother makes furniture. Her father did pottery, and her mother taught art in an elementary school. Ashmore is currently an editor at ETS, where she develops tests.
For the past 10 years, she has focused in her artwork on the processes known as fulling and felting. With fulling, woven or knitted cloth is subjected to moisture, heat, and friction, causing it to shrink considerably and become compact and solid. In heavily fulled fabrics, the weave and yarn are obscured, giving the appearance of felt. Felting is an ancient technique that produces a non-woven sheet of matted material, usually made from wool, hair, or fur created by the entanglement of a mass of fibers that takes place when heat, moisture, and pressure are combined.
“To change wool and work with colors and shapes is fascinating,” Ashmore says. “I have made felted slippers, bags, stuffed animals, and garments for friends and family. My latest was a blanket for my daughter to take to college. I’m working on a shawl for my sister’s 50th birthday.”
Ashmore has been knitting with her neighbor, Helen Schwartz (an artist and U.S.1 contributor), for years. When Schwartz agreed to create a birdhouse for the PCH benefit, she convinced Ashmore to do the same. Ashmore’s birdhouse uses a mix of hues, from light brown and magenta to orange, green, white, and yellow. “I wanted the roof to look like some of the yarn that birds would put bits and pieces into,” she says.
The appeal of knitting is both tactile and social, says Ashmore. These days, knitters interact through the Internet as well as in yarn stores and private circles. “I have taught several people to knit,” she says. “We knit at work. It can be a social activity but also an individual, solitary thing.”
“There’s No Place Like Home,” Sunday, September 30, 3 to 6 p.m., Educational Testing Service,” Rosedale Road. $25. Gala and silent auction to benefit Princeton Community Housing. For more information call 609-924-3822 extension 15.